Guest Blog – ‘Muzzled Watchdog’ to ‘Toothless Terrier’? by Helen Kirk

Agabus striolatus (Gyllenhal, 1808)
Photo: Martin Hammond.

Helen Kirk has been described as ‘an indefatigable and tenacious environmental campaigner and amateur naturalist’.  For more than 30 years she has championed and helped safeguard the Humberhead peatlands, and the special plants and creatures that depend on them. She is the executive secretary of the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum and has recently been awarded the British Empire Medal for services to conservation.

Back in July 2012, it was discovered that someone had bulldozed a floodbank protecting a piece of SSSI on Thorne Moors (a Natura 2000 site).  This resulted in large amounts of nutrient-enriched water pouring from a potato crop into an area of pristine fen which holds a water beetle so rare, it only occurs in one other area in Britain.  Allegedly, this damage was undertaken by the lawful agent of a neighbouring landowner, who is also a local Internal Drainage Board Member.

The incident was reported to NE site staff immediately and to the local Internal Drainage Board (IDB) as well as the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) in October.  The structural damage to a watercourse embankment was eventually ‘repaired’ in November.  The impact on the water quality in the SSSI is unknown and no-one seems to care.

Thorne Moors SSSI is an internationally recognised site particularly important for its rare insects but also for other plants and animals as well as habitat type.  It is a Special Protection Area for its breeding nightjar.

Eventually the RPA in a letter in December 2012 offered that a breach of cross-compliance may have occurred, but they would need proof that the actions directly affected the special features of the SSSI.

They went on to say that before they could reduce a payment for breach of compliance, they would need to undertake an inspection to verify things.  Yet despite sending evidence, no inspector arrived, and no action was taken against the perpetrator.  Watch this space for updates ….

Despite copious correspondence, none of Natural England, the RPA or the local IDB appears to be prepared to monitor the impact of thousands of gallons of agricultural run-off over a period of around five months.  This discharge is rich in nitrates and phosphates and is likely to alter the water quality of this ecologically sensitive piece of pristine fen on Thorne Moors SSSI. A recent water beetle survey of Thorne Moors noted about the area damaged that it ‘…is clearly one of the most important water beetle habitats on the Peatlands, with a fauna dominated by scarce and localised species’.  One of these rare water beetles is Agabus striolatus, which occurs in just one other area of England.

It seems that the view of these public funded agencies is that the body of proof of impact lies with others to establish not the individuals who caused the damage.  The site is caught in a Catch-22:  enforcement is unlikely because there is no finance to establish damage to sensitive populations and that unless a case is water tight then NE staff are not able to recommend enforcement or prosecution.

So the 1997 WWF (UK) Report “Muzzled Watchdog” has now become a candidate for a re-write as “Toothless Terrier” and the RPA a contender as the agri-industrialists’ “Lapdog”?  It seems incredible that millions are handed to agri-industrialists to encourage them to adopt good environmental practice and yet there is no-one overseeing value for public funds.   In 2008 the UK received €3,755 Million in EU farm subsidies.

Many of those same landowners are Board Members on IDBs who receive special levies from the Local Authority to ensure farmers’ land is drained, and under the provisions of The Land Drainage Act 1994 (which amended the LDA of 1991) duties were imposed in respect to the environment.  The relevant wording (1994 amendment of 1991 Act, Sect.61): It shall be the duty of an Internal Drainage Board …. to further the conservation of flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features of special interest. 

The local drainage board whose area it lies within and whose landowner is a member of was contacted.  Once they had established that they had not ‘consented’ the action, they effectively washed their hands of the matter.  The IDB meeting held shortly after a complaint had been submitted summarily dismissed the matter and the landowner declared that the matter was ‘not the board’s business and that it was between him and Natural England’.

One might be forgiven for thinking there’s little wonder that 62% of SSSIs remain in ‘unfavourable condition’ (using NE’s December figures for England) if this is the best that Defra agencies can do.

Thorne Moors SSSI has recently been awarded substantial funding through Defra to deliver a Water Level Management Plan through the IDBs, but what hope is there when some of their members demonstrate such contempt for SSSI status?

To my mind such actions raise a number of issues, amongst them:

  • The existence of public funded agencies ‘fit for purpose’ with systems which demonstrate compliance with the Wildlife & Countryside Act and the Habitats Regulations.
  • The ability of Defra agencies to act in a timely manner, to investigate incidents and to be able to ensure monitoring establishes impact and to recover public funds where damage and impact is proven.
  • The accountability of agri-industrialist landowners who sit on publicly funded IDBs.
  • A system which ensures that public money is not paid to landowners who damage SSSIs/Natura 2000 sites.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?



26 Replies to “Guest Blog – ‘Muzzled Watchdog’ to ‘Toothless Terrier’? by Helen Kirk”

  1. Given this government’s rhetoric, you’d think they would be more interested in investigating what amounts to potential benefit fraud on such a massive scale. I don’t see the difference between a landowner claiming social security payments based on his alleged custodianship of the environment, whilst failing to comply with the attendant responsibilities, and some scally working three jobs while claiming unemployment benefit. Except that said scally would have the full investigative force of the DWP coming down on his head from a very great height at the slightest whiff of malfeasance. It’s all about context, eh?

  2. The Environmental Damage Regs 2009 sit quietly on the shelf. At the time of introduction, made with very little fanfare, there was a scenario posted on Defra’s website which suggested that all costs, including consultancy on an ongoing basis during remediation, would be borne by the perpetrator of the damage. It covers damage to SSSIs. AFAIK these regs have not been used, despite many situations reported in the media which were appropriate, on the face of it. There is a note in the explanatory note to the effect that the regs cover “only the most serious cases” – I wonder if this is a reason for the lack of action?

    There’s this:,d.d2k&cad=rjt

    and this:

  3. One budget that hasn’t been touched by cuts are the payments to farmers. The Government would probably argue that is because that £3 billion is co-funded by Europe. It’s particularly interesting that the group getting the money seem to be among the most vociferous advocates of cuts and reduction in Government and anti-European. With the Government likely to try and claim it can’t afford to implement the recommendations of its own Independent Panel on Forestry two questions: why not take just a tiny cut off those farm payments to level the playing field between trees & wheat ? and, would the Government have cut or increased grants to forestry had it succeeded in selling the national forests to its supporters ?

    In the meantime, Defra continues to morph back into MAFF.

  4. It saddness me to think that this government cares so little about our environment. We have an interesting one happening on one of our bogs. 400 acres of the Wedholme Flow SSSI was used for peat cutting. Natural England is trying to restore the area but nature thinks this area is now a great place for thousands of birds hence the similarity of the story. Tons of phosphate and nitrate is being dumped on the peat by the birds which are Pink footed Geese, Whooper Swans, Teal, and mixed gulls in their thousands and smaller numbers of Shoveler, Pintail, Black tailed Godwit, Redshank, Lapwing, Curlew and Whimbrel. Amazingly all this chemical is not stopping the sphagnum from coming back and even though Natural England has added straw onto the peat [even in the breeding season!!] nature seems to be doing the job for them.

  5. It’s absolutely right that such cases are brought to the fore, its right that where failings are apparent with govt. agencies and the systems and processes are flawed, these are highlighted. We do have however, have what we have and unless more voices in the Conservation sector start speaking out against what this administration are doing to agencies such as Natural England then I’m afraid the future for even our designated sites should be of grave concern.
    It’s also a touch disingenuous to quote figures such as ‘62% of SSSIs remain in ‘unfavourable condition’’. The reality (and I’m not going to get into the detail of this) is that most SSSI’s are either recovering or favourable condition. Huge amounts of effort as well as funds have gone into helping SSSI’s move in the right direction. We should applaud this because it takes more than funds and legislation to achieve, working with landowners and that often means the farming community, is half the effort. What we should be saying is look at what can be achieved with (in real terms little public money) effective and proactive agencies. Having been directly involved (nee responsible) for many projects on lowland heaths, grasslands, woodlands and more the case needs to made direct to Defra/Govt/MPs –
    With the triennial of NE & EA soon to close I can only hope that those that give a dam actually make sound representations. There are still a number of us that do stick our heads above the trenches, we could do with more support.

    1. I would say it is more disengenous to not acknowledge the fact that the term “Unfavourable Recovering” is now fairly meaningless as it cannot be accepted as being accurate with any degree of confidence. Many SSSI’s that were assessed as being in “Unfavourable – No Change” or “Unfavourable – Declining” have been upgraded by NE to “Unfavourable Recovering” on the basis that there is a HLS agreement in place. This takes little or no account of how the agreement is working and is done purely so NE can pat itself on the back and claim progress on meeting its SSSI PSA targets.

      There is a very interesting report by John O’Reilly titled “The State of Upland Hay Meadows in the North Pennines” (British Wildlife, Vol 21, No.3, Feb 2010). Commenting on how meadows that were designated as SSSIs in the 1980s have fared, the report highlights 33 meadows that were designated as SSSIs primarily for their high quality upland hay-meadow vegetation. These sites were re-visited/re-surveyed by the ‘Hay Time Project’, which reported a decline in at least 48% of these meadows. O’Reilly reported that NE’s own condition assessment data on these same 33 meadows did not reflect this decline. The supporting pie charts included within the article show a staggering discrepancy.
      The author concludes:
      ‘This discrepancy between the ‘official’ figures on SSSI condition and the actual state of SSSIs in the field is in line with my experiences with SSSIs of other habitats and in other parts of the country. As the figure for the total area of SSSIs in England in favourable condition approaches the Government’s target of 95% (Defra 2009), it becomes more and more difficult to have any faith in it”

    2. Of course you put your head above the parapet Devil’sbite, thus I must assume that is your real name!
      Ernest has the right of it with HLS payments and condition. Why do rich grouse moor owners qualify for HLS? It’s not farmed environment, but despite increased burning and no birds of prey or even records of BOPS constantly failing to breed in individual moors they still get our money through HLS, seems like environmental fraud to me, aided amd abetted by NE.
      Actually none of this surprises me NE and the EA have been seriously nobbled by this “Green” Gov’t and the IDB are full of people on the make who care little or nothing about the none farmed environment. Thorne is a national treasure but it seems precious few in power care enough about such sites. Walshaw Moor is another case in point for both NE and EA (major streams diverted) to hang heads over.

    3. Disingenuous, mmh so …. simply sign off a WLMP and condition status goes from “unfavourable declining” to “unfavourable recovering”. Nothing has to actually happen on the ground, a paper exercise seems to do the trick these days. So I’d agree with Ernest Moss that such practice by ‘judge and jury’ does little to inspire any confidence in the statistics.

      I wonder Devil’sbite if were you sticking your head above the trenches in 1997 when the part denotification of SSSI status of Thorne & Hatfield Moors was proposed?

      Thankfully Dr H Frankland was in 1969 when the WRCC proposed to permit fuel ash being dumped on Thorne Moors, but she worked for the Nature Conservancy Council.

      The reality, here at Thorne & Hatfield Moors in South Yorkshire / North Lincolnshire is sadly very different to the rose tinted picture you paint.

  6. Sadly I am not surprised by this. I used to manage a valley mire NNR which was adjacent to a working quarry. After a period of heavy rain, the bund between the quarry silt lagoon and the NNR collapsed resulting in many tons of silt being washed into the NNR, coating the whole of the base of the valley mire in silt up to several inches thick. At a site meeting with English Nature (as they then were) and the Environment Agency, EN’s national ‘expert’ stated that the incident had no caused any damage to the mire! The Environment Agency had been willing to prosecute but felt that they could not proceed if EN were saying that no damage had been caused. As far as I am concerned, EN / NE has been wearing dentures for many years.

  7. Maybe monitoring/condition of SSSIs & SPAs, including all the issues Helen raises, could be something the Environmental Audit Committee gets it’s teeth into, after the forensic job they did recently on wildlife crime.

    ‘Greenest government ever’ my foot!

    1. Absolutely MK, excellent idea.

      Ever an agnostic but ever a realist, is the EAC truly independent?

      Other independent audits desperately needed are the environmental performance of Internal Drainage Boards (certainly here in the Humberhead Levels area).

      Then for good measure can we have independent audits of agri-environmental schemes to ensure they deliver value for public funding and equally importantly for environmental benefit (as a species we benefit naturally).

  8. Heaven help a farmer randomly inspected by the RPA and not having ear tags present in all of his cattle. And yet, when a clear and major breach such as this occurs, where are the RPA? Still fining small farmers who just want to farm and who just don’t “do” paperwork to the level that the RPA require. And whilst I still think NE has some very good staff, they have had every one of the teeth pulled out. I shall be responding to the current Defra consultation on the future of the EA and NE but I hold little hope for their independent futures.

    1. The amalgamation of the three agencies in 2007 led to domination by business managers and science was either shown the door or soon departed.

      There are indeed a few good staff left but sadly they are a declining species and seriously impacted by the political ‘climate change’ within the organisation.

  9. Thanks for raising this one, Mark. I agree with your list of issues but would add to them. From where I sit, it looks like half of our SSSIs and SACs are no longer protected because: the number of staff within NE with adequate skills to diagnose the condition of sites is dwindling, the fear of upsetting the government (AKA landowners) is so great that most NE managers will not take action (a function of the loss of independence from government) and although agri-environment funding is plentiful for the moment, there are no other funds – for example to carry out specialised site investigations as clearly needed at Thorne and Hatfield. It is high time there was a “Toothless Terrier” report! Who is going to write it?

      1. I’d be happy to provide case studies towards the “Toothless Terrier” report.

        Although from I hear there may be enough material for a trilogy, perhaps the IDBs and the RPA might feature in the “Lapdog” volume?

        1. Helen and others that have responded to my comment. On much of what you’ve said I cannot disagree. In fact it troubles me as much as you that figures are in effect manipulated to achieve targets. However, the target of getting the SSSI series into the ‘right’ condition was not of previously EN’s and now NE’s making but that of Defra and in affect deliver, or be dammed. The later may happen yet and rightly or wrongly it would seem that a number don’t rightly care too much. What I’d hope is that we all pushed for a natural environment agency with sharp teeth. For years now agencies such as NE have been gradually weakened and my point was that this coalition appears to be banging in the final nails.
          On the issue of whether a site is favourable or unfavourable recovering my point is that from the comments damming NE (and I would hasten to add there are still a lot of good staff who really do care) to suggest that there has been no improvement is simply untrue. So yes simply signing an HLS agreement doesn’t make a SSSI wonderful but it is the start (hopefully) that management will be delivered. Equally, simply ‘removing scrub’ is not a mechanism (at least in my book) to simply trigger turning sites from red to green – but clearing hectares of Rhodo, blocking damaging drains, restoring a hay meadow system, getting stock back on commons where they haven’t been for years is positive and therefore such sites are clearly moving in the right direction.
          In terms of seeing things through rose-tinted specs, having been witness and officer on a fair few EIA (Agric) cases and therefore seen unimproved grasslands wrecked because of useless legislation please don’t tar us all with the same brush. In the end we are all fighting for the same things and as I stated first off NE and any other agencies should be taken to task if they have failed in their duties.

  10. Looking at N/Es site regarding assessment of condition it says if scrub clearance has taken place the condition can be assessed as improving. All N/E have to do is remove a few bushes and all is OK! It will take Government to split off N/E from the other organisations and give N/E real powers of action over habitat and wildlife destruction before we see any improvement from N/E. Are N/E giving us value for money at present? It seems not! We cannot call this country Civilised until Wildlife and their Habitats are given the protection they need. I doubt this government care anything for wildlife. All they are concerned about, like local authorities, is creating paperwork.

  11. I remember – and this was some time ago – listening to a Government minister defending some new project that was going to destroy an SSSI by saying that they were going to nominate another SSSI to make up for it.

    At the time I found it hard to imagine anything more cynical.

  12. The crux of this matter is that RPA are unwilling to take even token enforcement action against a land owner who has clearly broken cross-compliance conditions. Surely this case needs referring to whichever EU secretariat oversees agricultural subsidies, preferably by an organisation with some clout such as WWF or RSPB. I suspect that with a little bit of investigation hundreds of comparable cases could be found. The time is ripe, now that the Government are demanding value for every penny of public expenditure, and when there is unprecedented attention to the way that banks and multinationals fleece the taxpayer. Farm subsidies remain the only form of public handout escaping scrutiny.

    1. “RPA are unwilling to take even token enforcement action”

      Probably because that isn’t it’s job. RPA delights in taking “enforcement” action on the most trivial of uncrossed Ts or undotted Is. It does so by withholding a percentage – or all – of the Single Payment, and subjecting the miscreant to regular inspections thereafter. The other stuff is for EN and EA afaik.

  13. Interesting comments. One point to note, EN were fully complicit in the establishment of the 2010 PSA Target. It is not true to say it was just imposed.

    Anyone who thinks the reported condition of SSSIs as of Dec 2010 was actually accurate is either stupid, gullible or a bare-faced liar (take your pick depending on what your view is).

    Natural England is a disaster. It went wrong from the moment an inexperienced CEO was appointed who then in turn appointed a bunch of comedians. They currently have an exec board with no demonstrable expertise in protecting the environment and who provide little or no leadership. The indifference of the NGOs in the last 10 years is shameful and highlights a fundamental problem in that there are too many wastrel careerists in the environment sector.

    Natural England has some good staff still but they are heavily outnumbered by bullshitters and people just out for any easy ride. Because of their lack of understanding, execs are not able to tell when they are being played but even if they were, one suspects they would rather be defra and Whitehall lapdogs anyway.

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